Knowing the difference between sight vs. visual processing

When it comes to learning, visual processing can affect how a student performs. The ATT in collaboration with Walder Education offered an informative and practical professional development session on Visual Processing, presented by Dr. Neil Margolis, O.D., a board-certified developmental optometrist. 

Dr. Margolis defined and described the different visual processing skills and their application to learning. Sight refers to seeing clearly while visual processing refers to the brain’s ability to use and interpret visual information. Students whose academic performance does not meet aptitude predictions may have visual processing weaknesses. 

Dr. Margolis explained that vision is the understanding and interpretation of what one sees. A person’s vision cannot be measured like eyesight because vision itself is cortical, using the whole brain. When efficient, vision is thought to account for up to 80 percent of learning. 

When inefficient, it interferes with learning.

Visual processing skills

There are many areas of learning where visual processing skills come into play. Some of these areas include learning to read, reading to learn and copying information accurately.  

Specific examples of visual processing skills include: 

  • Recognizing known words correctly when reading
  • Navigating the page accurately when tracking
  • Checking copying accuracy
  • Judging spacing 
  • Layout as well as remembering and visualizing what one sees

Poor tracking causes a student to lose his or her place, skip words when reading, and misread known words. Teachers can raise awareness by observing a child’s posture, horizontal head turn, vertical head tilt, and blinking or winking. 

Visual-spatial skills affect the navigation aspect of tracking, organizing spacing when copying, direction of letters and words, and lining up columns. This will affect a student who is struggling with this skill in the following ways:

  • Determining where to go next on the page
  • Spacing between letters and words and size of letters and words
  • Finding the correct spot when looking back and forth
  • Discriminating between the letters “b” and “d”, was and saw, numbers 13 and 31
  • Understanding math diagrams & graphs

Support for visual processing

Fortunately, many of the activities to build visual processing skills can be fun and enjoyable for students. Puzzles and games are great ways to help students strengthen their visual spatial skills. As students self-regulate their learning, they need visual discrimination. This includes noticing differences between similar words and letters as well as noticing errors of copying.

Students can learn to check their work and start to notice directional differences. The students reading accuracy may be affected by misreading similar-looking words. Visual discrimination requires noticing differences based on size, color, shape, internal detail, orientation, pattern, internal or external features. 

Teachers and parents can help students improve visual discrimination by using tools and techniques. Matching objects based on criteria of color, shape, size can be helpful, especially for younger children. Matching pictures, patterns, or word searches is a useful technique.  

Using multiple criteria, having them spot the difference or correct an error can help them develop skills. It’s also beneficial to have students sort objects in a hands-on approach with sorting coins to build visual discrimination skills. Students can also list words having the same beginning or ending sounds. 

Helpful accommodations 

A teacher can help by circling differences the student may not have noticed in copying. By highlighting the beginning or ending of words before reading, teachers can provide extra support for the student to gain skills independently. 

There are many helpful accommodations to make the lesson more accommodating to students with visual processing disorders. Some of these include: 

  • Use highlighters
  • Use different colors
  • Increase white space on the page or increase the spacing between lines
  • Cover non-relevant components
  • Put less on the page
  • Use bigger print
  • Stand against a plain background
  • Read slower
  • Use text to speech software
  • Specifically point at a figure or word or have the student use his or her finger on the page to keep track

Dr. Margolis stressed the importance of the appropriate classroom accommodations that can be used to support students having visual processing difficulties. Because visual processing affects classroom performance, it’s important to address correctable visual skills. 

One way to do this is to help students notice what is relevant to the task or situation. This will ultimately build student self-esteem and confidence as the child uses effective effort and practice to achieve better outcomes in learning.

Visual memory also influences learning. This type of memory includes working memory (both short and long-term) affecting recall and recognition of letters, words, and sight word vocabulary. Often there is visualization through verbalization. This helps a child visualize objects, words, sentences, and paragraphs of information to aid in learning as visual memory is necessary for recall and comprehension.

By recognizing the difference between sight and visual processing, educators will be better equipped to help students thrive in learning by giving them the support they need.  

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